You Can't Disappear Those You Disagree With

It's simple: "The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff." Said Salman Rushdie. Go figure. Let truth and falsehood grapple. How do we know what is right if we don't know wrong and the case that is made for wrong. Ideas may be distasteful and deeply disagreeable, but we cannot airbrush and disappear that and those people that we disagree with.

My cartoon: The new censor - The Sneering Metropolitan

It's a national pass-time. Laughing at Daily Mail readers. It get's me, big time. I don't read the rag; but my parents do. And lots of other people I respect dearly. There's a material discrepancy. The 4.3 million Daily Mail readers include more from the top three social classes than the Times, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times combined. That's a marked gap. Are people saying that those who read that paper and hold traditional views are all deluded and are to be ignored and ridiculed?

Pig-whistle politics isn't the preserve of Ukip. It's the territory and play thing of the smug, self-righteous, preening liberal. It's OK to refuse to read the Daily Mail. It's not OK to refuse the right of those with Daily Mail views to speak. This is cudgel waving, liberal sanctimony that extends to oppressive liberal bigotry. A debate about abortion at Christ Church, Oxford was shut down and foreclosed. A de facto censorship, prohibition and outlawing of certain views. Thoughts made unholdable within certain localities. Effectively thought crimes. And of course those localities pertain almost exclusively to university campuses.

It's a symptom of this hair-trigger indignation, outrage cult where every verbal misstep and and mishap demands resignation and prosecution. We love our rage. As David Mitchell said:

We've gone into an age where people really enjoy over reacting... People enjoy their outrage.

"We're a world that overreacts and overreaction is a very big tool that is used by people."

The Oxford debate and other events is this rage cult in motion. As Brendan O'Neill wrote in the Spectator:

"If your go-to image of a student is someone who's free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind's picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It's hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have. From freewheelin' to ban-happy, from askers of awkward questions to suppressors of offensive speech, in the space of a generation. My showdown with the debate-banning Stepfords at Oxford and the pre-crime promoters at Cambridge echoed other recent run-ins I've had with the intolerant students of the 21st century. I've been jeered at by students at the University of Cork for criticising gay marriage; cornered and branded a 'denier' by students at University College London for suggesting industrial development in Africa should take precedence over combating climate change; lambasted by students at Cambridge (again) for saying it's bad to boycott Israeli goods. In each case, it wasn't the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming -- disagreement is great! -- it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas."

Then there was the Barbican show, Exhibit B - banned. In response Catherine Bennett wrote in her piece, 'What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?':

"After some disorder, Berlin audiences were able to judge for themselves. Not so in London, none of the above apologists, black or white, having satisfied critics including Paul Boateng and Lee Jasper, former adviser on equalities to Ken Livingstone. But as Jasper made clear,in an attack on Exhibit B, after it was defended by the (white-dominated) Barbican, any such defence was likely to be construed, in itself, as racist, in that it ascribed deficient understanding to protesters (who in turn ascribe deficient understanding to the show's participants)."

David Aaronovitch responded to the Barbican scandal here, and said:

"You have no right not to be offended... Because if you have a right not to be offended, then so does the person who is offended by you. And there is always somebody who will be."

It was the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas who said:

"To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money ... And there let it rest for ever."

There is great worth to holding and speaking the the unconventional. Niall Ferguson said that he and a minority of fellow students were spear carriers in the Cold War in a revolt against the suffocating social democratic consensus that prevailed in universities back then.

The trend isn't unique to this archipalegic super-group - we're seeing an outbreak in America. In response to this phenomenon Michael Bloomberg dedicated a 2014 Harvard Commencement speech, 'Don't Major in Intolerance', to the matter. It's worth a read, and here's a large chunk:

"There is an idea floating around college campuses -- including here at Harvard -- that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice."

And here's the nothing-but-net-moment, as he said: "There's a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism." He continued:

"In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. In the 2012 presidential race, 96% of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama. That statistic, drawn from Federal Election Commission data, should give us pause -- and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama. When 96% of faculty donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a university should offer. Diversity of gender, ethnicity and orientation is important.

But a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous.

In fact, the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms. When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms. Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research will lose credibility. A liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.

This spring, it has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw, or have their invitations rescinded, after protests from students and -- to me, shockingly -- from senior faculty and administrators who should know better. It happened at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers and Smith. Last year, it happened at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins. In each case, liberals silenced a voice and denied an honorary degree to individuals they deemed politically objectionable.

As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I believe that a university's obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points. If the faculty fails to do this, then it is the responsibility of the administration and governing body to step in and make it a priority. If they do not, if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society. If you want to know where that leads, look no further than Washington."

It's simple: "The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff." Said Salman Rushdie. Go figure. Let truth and falsehood grapple. How do we know what is right if we don't know wrong and the case that is made for wrong. Ideas may be distasteful and deeply disagreeable, but we cannot airbrush and disappear that and those people that we disagree with.


What's Hot